ARCHIVED – Speaking notes for the Honourable Jason Kenney, P.C., M.P. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism at the unveiling, at Pier 21, of The Wheel of Conscience, a monument to commemorate the MS St. Louis
Your Honour, Minister, elected colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests. On behalf of the government of Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I am truly honoured to join with you at this remarkable place on this historic day, a day of memory, a day of learning, and a day of reconciliation.
On the eve of the Second World War, more than 900 Jewish passengers fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany boarded the MS St. Louis in Hamburg, captained by Gustav Schröder, one of the righteous amongst the nations.
They sought refuge in ports in Cuba, the United States and South America, as we have heard. But everywhere they were rejected. When leaders of the Canadian Jewish community approached the government of Canada seeking refuge for her passengers, the answer was the same as it always was for Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe: No.
And so the remaining 620 passengers on what became known as the Voyage of the Damned were forced to return to Europe, many to face their death in the apocalypse of the Shoah.
Had Canada taken a stand, had it been true to its best and highest values, had it opened its doors of refuge to those passengers fleeing the violent anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, it is probable that those 620 children, women and men would have walked down the gangplank right here and passed through these halls, following with some half a million others over the course of five decades who came through this place seeking the promise of Canada’s freedom and peace.
In unveiling The Wheel of Conscience today, in creating this permanent memorial, we are remembering the harrowing plight of the Voyage of the Damned. We are remembering both those who were consumed by the Holocaust as well as those who survived it.
And we do so because we have a duty to remember. But we are also teaching and we are learning. We are learning our own history of anti-Semitism. And we are teaching the hundreds of thousands of students old and young who will pass through this new Canadian National Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to contemplate this memorial.
We will teach them that hatred can metastasize into racism, that racism leads to xenophobia, and that xenophobia is often expressed through the most historically durable and pernicious hatred of all, anti-Semitism.
But let us be clear. We are here not only to remember the voyage of the St. Louis and to learn how about how Canada’s no sent hundreds of its passengers back to certain death. We are here because the rejection of the St. Louis is the most poignant symbol of Canada’s rejection of virtually all European Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War.
Canada’s doors were largely closed to immigration in the 1930’s, the era of the Great Depression. But Jewish refugees were singled out for particular contempt. When the most senior official in the immigration branch told Prime Minister Mackenzie King, “No country can open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jews who want to leave Europe. The line must be drawn somewhere,” for all intents and purposes, the line was drawn at none.
In their book, None Is Too Many, our Master of Ceremonies, Irving Abella, and Harold Troper, uncovered Canada’s systematic rejection of Jewish refugees. As Irving has written, Canada arguably had the worst record of any Western nation in accepting Jews attempting to escape the Nazis.
When it came to Jewish refugees, none is too many was the official policy. None is too many became Canada’s policy in part because of indifference, in part because of bureaucratic subterfuge. But let there be no mistake. Anti-Semitic attitudes informed and infected the public debate at the time, which in turn influenced the rejectionism of Canadian political leaders.
This is a particularly poignant moment for me as Canada’s Minister of Immigration to stand here and think that the decisions taken by my predecessors in the name of the government of Canada led to the tragedy of the St. Louis and the unspoken tragedy of perhaps tens of thousands of others who Canada could have saved.
I hope that this memorial will call to mind for all who see it the promise and the potential of those who never made it to Canada because of the policy of rejectionism. How many other Daniel Libeskinds, how many brilliant artists, creators, builders, entrepreneurs, how many human beings did we close the doors to during the greatest crime of human history. We will never know.
This monument, this memorial, will be a concrete perpetual expression of regret on behalf of the government and the people of Canada to the Jewish community, to the survivors of the Shoah and to the sacred memory of those who were lost.
But let us remember that the story did not end in 1939 or in 1945. That we have in this room, we have on this stage representatives of the some 25,000 survivors of the Holocaust who did come to Canada in the years following the war when Canada did live up to its highest values by becoming the third-largest refuge for the survivors of the Shoah in the world after Israel and the United States, a tradition of which we are all enormously proud.
And so, in part, this memorial is a gift of the living, of those who survived, have contributed to this country, have led the Jewish community and have called us back to collective memory, and this expression of regret.
And so we thank all of them, thank the Canadian Jewish Congress and all of those in the community responsible for this day, and Mr. Libeskind, for this memorial.
We must all, of course, learn not just the lessons of history but apply them to the future. And that is why as Canadians we have built an open and welcoming society. It is why we can be proud that we receive more refugees than any other country in the developed world in terms of the size of our country.
Just tomorrow I will be welcoming several Iraqi refugees who have been receiving medical treatment after having been brutally wounded in an attack on their church in Baghdad in November. They, together with 20,000 others, will have new and safe and free lives here in Canada in part because we have learned the lessons of 1939.
And let us be clear. Canada will never close its doors to legitimate refugees who need our protection and who are fleeing persecution.
This memorial is concretely the result of the Community Historical Recognition Program that was launched in 2008. This $25 million fund fulfills our commitment to ethnic and cultural communities affected by wartime measures and immigration restrictions applied in Canada, by supporting projects that acknowledge, commemorate and educate Canadians about historical immigration-related events.
That in itself has been amplified by taking the brilliant work begun here at Pier 21 as a private society and joining it to the resources in support of the government of Canada as the new national Museum of Immigration.
From the funding in the Community Historical Recognition Program, the Canadian Jewish Congress is receiving $475,000 for a project entitled “None Is Too Many: Memorializing and Commemorating the MS St. Louis”. This memorial monument is but one component of that.
In June 2009, Canada hosted a conference entitled “The St. Louis Era: Looking Back, Moving Forward”. At that event, I was proud to announce the government’s partnership with B’nai B'rith Canada to develop the National Task Force on Holocaust Research, Remembrance and Education.
That initiative and this and other projects complement two related Canadian efforts: our membership in the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, for which this is our inaugural major project, and the second-annual conference of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, which we hosted in Ottawa this past November.
These efforts, together with those of so many in Canadian civil society and the government of Canada, demonstrate that Canada is leading the world now in the fight against this uniquely durable and pernicious form of hatred which is represented by the wheel on the memorial driven by all the others, the hatred of anti-Semitism.
We dedicate ourselves to teaching future generations about the injustices and xenophobia of our own history, and to ensuring that they are never repeated. May God bless the sacred memory of those whose lives we did not save, for all of those who were lost in the Shoah, and may God bless Canada, this great land of freedom and peace. Thank you.
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